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A thread on storytelling...


#201

Honestly, though, I think it is a sign of mastery if an author does simply keep his world tuned to the story that he’s telling. That sort of essential writing is hard to do, but it keeps focus on the main attraction of the story: its protagonists.


#202

That all depends on the kind of story you want to tell, of course. But even if you do keep it exclusively to the one plot of one protagonist, you’ll have to flesh out the world in which the story is taking place in such a way that it would allow for more stories. At least if it’s a fantastic world; I think with stories taking place in our reality, you don’t have to do that as much because it’s easier for us readers to fill in the gaps.

I mean, we know that there are a number of stories taking place in our reality.

(If we want this to get more complicated, we could argue that there is no one reality when it comes to literary fiction and that there is only some overlap with the reality we experience in everyday life… but maybe that’d take the discussion a bit too far :slight_smile:)


#203

I’ve argued before that all contemporary fiction must be SF, because it’s set in an alternate universe, one that’s similar to but just slightly askew from our own. And alternate universes are squarely in the province of science fiction :wink:


#204

In classic science fiction, the idea was - and maybe still is - the real attraction. Fleshing out a story to the extent that it would be a viable “world” would actually work against delivering the idea. If you’ve read DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP, there are a lot of interesting elements to that world, BUT what the story is actually doing is twisting contemporary life against the science fiction setting. So, there is a scene where the protagonist goes to a pet shop to look at a sheep he wants to buy and it plays out like a person going to a car dealership at the time. By changing “Cadillac” into “a sheep,” it’s really about shifting the perspective to show that neither purchase is really about anything material that a person wants when they buy it - it’s about demonstrating status.

So, if Dick had focused on creating a speculative “reality” behind the story - building a world that would work external from the story - he would have been playing against the idea that drove the story - the dehumanization of contemporary consumerism as it plays out in everyday experience.

I think that the “world building” approach is more hackneyed and for potboilers - easy reading and writing that is easy to sell. It’s really the lowest form of imagination and not as skillful as the more focused approach. Lord of the Flies has a world in which it takes place, but really it is not a world like Lord of the Rings where you could tell many different stories, but Goldings’ story actually goes farther in its imagination than anything Tolkien wrote.

In the end, though I enjoying reading light fantasy and science fiction, I think the tendency to emphasize world building is really what makes them such light escapism. It’s much easier to come up with a fictional world than crafting a dramatic story, and it’s there mostly to encourage fan speculation which is a big part of the commercial appeal of these vast fictional universes.


#205

I have to add that the more you create a background and try to flesh out your world the more you would be labelled a sellout milking your original story dry.

Why I like Matt Wagner and his Grendel story. There are so many incarnations of the character, but the most popular one who called himself Grendel was Hunter Rose. His only story was in Devil by the Deed, how he rose to power, became Grendel, his fall and how another took up the mantle.

Others have written stories to take place within that story (including Grendel’s run in with Batman as a crossover) but there were no gimmicks on resurrecting Hunter and so on. Wagner made the Hunter incarnation a somewhat sealed story.


#206

True. I like the guys who can stop telling the story when it is finished and leave it alone for people to pick up who haven’t read it.

at the same time, I don’t mind people milking stories. They have to make a living and I will probably read it. Really, I just don’t think it is all that difficult to come up with a fictional universe compared to telling a tight self-contained story.


#207

I think you’re creating a false dichotomy there; there is no reason why one of those should contradict the other.

The point concerning Do Androids… is a good one, and I think I agree with it, where that kind of story is concerned. But again, it all depends on the kind of story that you want to tell, and while this is the way Dick’s stories worked (though maybe not all of them, looking at Man in the High Castle and the current TV series), others just take a different approach.

To give a contrasting example, 1984’s world is fully fleshed out and you could easily see other (equally depressing) stories taking place in Oceania.

Where the idea of skilfullness is concerned, once again there are all kinds of skills. Good world-building does take skill, and you can see when there is a lack of it. But really it is the same kind of skill of lack thereof as in other stories that are focused on describing their surroundings well, from John Steinbeck to Salman Rusdhie.

Overall, you’re close to taking a normative approach to literature there, which has never worked all too well.


#208

But, the point I’m making is that it doesn’t take any more skill than not spending time building a world wider than the story told. It’s really just a gimmick and most of the successful fictional worlds really were never intended to be that initially. Lovecraft never intended for his various creatures to inhabit a defined pantheon but his readers and later writers created it - not him. Roddenberry didn’t have a definite idea of all the details of Star Trek - but the fans would later flesh it out endlessly far beyond any effort the creator put into it.

World building is primarily a sales or marketing gimmick to get people engaged and keep them buying your work. It can be done skillfully, but there are plenty of poorly constructed worlds out there that sell like crazy because the authors can simply rely on the fans to do the work.


#209

cough Hunger Games cough

That’s one of the laziest pieces of world building I’ve ever seen, but it sold lots of books and movie tickets. Power of fans if I ever saw it.


#210

A lot of YA books are like that, right? Even Harry Potter - there really is no way Rowling intended to have such a detailed Wizarding World from the first book and the seams are starting to show with the follow up works after Harry Potter. In some ways, though, they almost cannot be well-developed without defeating the central premise or power fantasy that some child is the most important and perfect person in the world. I mean, how seriously can you take the story’s universe when the final battle of its World War takes place between adults and children at a High School? It’s like World War 2 ending when Hitler personally leads an assault on Churchill’s nephew and classmates at Harrow School in England.

On a similar note, shared fictional worlds can be quite limiting. There was an interesting video recently that looked at movies like First Man, Apollo 13, The Right Stuff and Hidden Figures as all part of a “cinematic universe.” The same characters showed up and each shared the same history, but each film focused on different members of the broader cast at different times and told each story in vastly different ways. The same could be said of The King’s Speech, Dunkirk and Darkest Hour. They are kinda different movies set in the same universe, but very different in approach.

So, in relation to skill, the point they were making was that the Marvel movies all have a “house style” that is more like television shows and spin offs. However, emphasizing the style - the nature of the fictional world - limits the way you can tell a story in that world. World War 2 movies can be very different from Patton to Midway to Big Red 1 to Saving Private Ryan to A Bridge Too Far. However, in Homecoming: Spider Man, Tony Stark looks exactly the same as he does in Iron Man and Avengers. However, he doesn’t necessarily have to just as Churchill and King George V are hardly the same in King’s Speech as they are in Darkest Hour.


#211

No, you were saying it shows lack of skill. That is the part I disagree with.

Depends on the story.

Some stories only work so well because they take place in a such a well-constructed universe - like Dune, for example. And that has nothing to do with its being a sales or marketing gimmick, it’s just one of the things that can make a story work, if hat’s the kind of story you’re telling.


#212

I’d say it does take less skill to build a world than to tell a story. Building a world is not really writing. At best, it’s a writing exercise. It probably came out of all the writing books that said you have to come up with a biography for your character - which is fun, but is not writing. Those came out of the realism movement and are hardly the best books on writing (if there are any good books). It’s not like Samuel Becket had to come up with a back story for Vladimir and Estragon nor do you really need to know much of the detailes about Philip Marlowe or even Jake Gittes to get into their mysteries. Hell, most of Sherlock Holmes’ past life was a complete mystery to the readers to the extent it was a surprise to learn he had a brother.

With the original novel Dune, it wasn’t like Herbert developed an entire world and then placed a story in it. He had the ideas of the story first and then the world was entirely crafted so that it supported Paul’s adventure. After that, the story was fleshed out often by others - not Herbert himself (he didn’t write the Dune Encyclopedia, for example). Of course, Dune stands out from the later sequels as those really are stories set in that world rather than stories where the world was crafted for them.

It’s fun, but I think it breeds diminishing returns over time especially in fiction where the world rather than the characters are emphasized.


#213

And once again, you’re treating those things like they’re contradictory. Sometimes, building a world is a part of telling a story. Sometimes, it isn’t (so much).

Exactly. But there are a lot of details that you don’t strictly need to tell Paul’s adventure. And yet, stuff like Butler’s Jihad, the mentats and the power balance between Ix, the Navigators, the Emperor and the Bene Gesserit is what makes it work so well.

It’s not like Samuel Becket had to come up with a back story for Vladimir and Estragon

That story didn’t need a plot, either.

It’s almost as if… it always depends on the kind of story you’re writing :wink:


#214

You needed all those to tell the story. Why don’t they have robots in the future? Herbert needed a way for Paul to develop human potential so there had to be a reason technology was not computerized. Also, he needed the Guild to have a monopoly, the Emperor and Landsraad are important elements. Arrakis being the only source of the Spice as well. They are a larger world, but they only appear in their relationship to Paul’s journey. It was a world crafted specifically for that story. Nothing in it was divorced from the plot.


#215

Could’ve done with just the spice enhancement on Arrakis. No real need to have a history of computer tech being banned because AI had gone wild and there was a war.

But no need to flesh them out and give them little histories of their own. You could strike a lot of stuff there without losing Paul’s story. It’s almost as if the feeling of a living, breathing universe adds to the story.


#216

He didn’t give them histories of their own in the first novel. That’s my point. Everything you learn in DUNE is in relationship to Paul’s situation at that time in the novel. Even when they bring up - very briefly - the Butlerian Jihad, it’s to give context to Paul’s understanding of politics and the many different methods of control. The Guild and the fact that they are evolved by the spice is important information only because Paul later is evolved by his spice experience. You don’t really learn anything about the emperor, CHOAM and the Landsraad other than how it figures in the conflict between the Harkonnen and Atriedes. You learn the emperor is feared for his Sardukar troops, but you only need to know that because they appear later when Paul and his Fremen troops attack the imperial palace-ship.

In the first novel, the world is not expanded beyond what it is necessary to know in relation to the story. The Bene Gesserit’s breeding program, their voice, the use of Mentats in place of computers, the Spice, the Guild and the Fremen are only developed to the point that they are used in the story and specifically encountered by Paul. It was only later that the “Dune Universe” became something expansive and, again, much of that was not Frank Herbert’s work.

To me, world building just seems to be impressive, but it often adds nothing to the story. DUNE is a good example. If Paul’s story wasn’t a compelling read, no amount of detail in the world would make it successful and if a story has a strong protagonist and plot, leaving out details of the world wouldn’t hurt it. In fact, many good stories don’t really explain their worlds at all.

I don’t mind world building - often it is fun for the fans to inhabit them imaginatively - but I also think sometimes we’d be better off if people weren’t spending so much of their imagination and daydreams there - basically letting the property of their minds be colonized by the intellectual property of some corporate product. That’s why I consider them more marketing than writing. They primarily end up promoting or propping up a product - the “world of” such or such - even when the stories aren’t very good in the later offerings and the original author is long gone.


#217

Of course it is. It’d be weird if there was a chapter just telling the history of the Bene Gesserit (though with the quotes, that’s as close to something like that as you’ll get). But that’s not what we’re talking about, since no novel does that. We’re talking about the one thousand details in every conversation that let you glimpse the fully fleshed-out universe of Dune.

Your example of Do Androids… made a lot of sense because it is the opposite approach - Dick’s fictional worlds feel a bit paper-thin because they aren’t supposed to be worlds of their own, you’re not supposed to sink into them. But at this point, it seems like you’re railing against writers who… I don’t know, first write an entire compedium of their worlds before turning to the story, without any relation to that story? Which is a weird thing to rail against because nobody does that outside of fan fiction and Dave Meadows for his role-playing campaigns, presumably.

Maybe you can give a specific example of what you’re talking about?


#218

Wow you two are taking this to the next level… Excellent.

I was going to talk about some who bit off far more than what they could proverbially chew.

Case in point was the Matrix trilogy. To really do Neo’s situation justice, there really should have been a long film about free will, destiny, etc. and the Wachowski’s just couldn’t do it. They just gave us stunts, leather outfits, and more kung fu.


#219

Oh, I think the second and third Matrix films definitely were about destiny, free will and so on - they just didn’t marry the philosophical ideas quite smoothly to the action and spectacle as they did in the first film.


#220

I am not so sure the Matrix is all that profound philosophically. The first movie was cool but those ideas weren’t so deep. There’s a bit of Plato’s cave in there of course.